The Black Keys pulled something of a bait-and-switch at their Madison Square Garden show on Monday night: they stormed the stage as a quartet, with singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney supplemented by two backing musicians. The band soon proved that they didn't need the additional firepower, though; they cast off the extra players quickly, with a cocksure authority that became the night's theme, and showed unequivocally that they could command the arena alone.
For their first of two sold-out nights at MSG, the Keys remained faithful to their retro-rock ethos of late. The duo's shrewd hour-and-a-half set relied on minimal stage effects, an absence of marquee guests and the rudely heavy riffs of their recent seventh LP, El Camino – the same album that largely eschewed the Keys' blues roots, and not coincidentally, their most successful to date. More than any of the band's preceding material, the songs from El Camino cast a spell over the packed arena as Auerbach wound their hooks into broad, euphoric payoffs.
The Keys' slow-burn success over the past decade has hinged on their egos; longtime underdogs, they exude a kind of triumphal arrogance that was on full display at MSG. The duo opened with the sing-song chirp of "Howlin' for You" (from their Grammy-winning 2010 LP, Brothers), which was impeded by murky sound mixing. It clarified in time for El Camino's "Run Right Back," sped up into a plaintive squeal via the ferocious drumming of Carney, who hunched over his kit and took no solos in the show (no matter to the audience, who howled unabated each time the spotlight landed on him).
When the band shed their two hired hands (bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboardist John Wood), they hit a stride of ragged, cavernous bombast that belied their numbers; Auerbach's riffs seemed the work of a full cavalry, decadent and drenching the Garden completely, especially on the faithful renditions of El Camino's "Dead and Gone" and "Gold on the Ceiling" and the drawling throwback "Girl Is On My Mind" from 2004's Rubber Factory. This pared-down interlude was the highlight of the set, and a clearly emotional one; the band also offered one nod to their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up, with the swaggering blues cadence of "I'll Be Your Man."
The manic pace was unyielding – the Keys' fervor hardly translates to inert ballads – and it culminated in "Tighten Up," with the Brothers single's roiling pace capped by Auerbach's note-perfect whistling. (Rolling Stone has already extolled his talents.) The band closed out the night with a buoyant, rapturous take on El Camino lead single "Lonely Boy," as Carney hulked over his kit with a determined grimace and Auerbach hopped on one foot in a fitting Chuck Berry allusion, goading the crowd to clap along.
After leaving the stage for a perfunctory few minutes, the pair returned underneath an obscenely large disco ball to deliver the lithe falsetto purr of Brothers' "Everlasting Light" – a song of such featherweight funk that it seemed incongruous when first released, but proved perfectly in sync with the glam inclinations of El Camino and also the Black Keys' powerful vitality at Madison Square Garden. The track wound down the evening as a succinct, poignant statement, a moment in which Auerbach and Carney seemed to assert that they always knew where they were going: straight to the biggest stages in the world.